Erick Castro photographs his vegan fried-oyster-mushroom po'boy outside of a Whole Foods in Brooklyn. The sandwich is made by local vegan food business Chickpea and Olive. (Mary Mathis/NPR)
Erick Castro is standing outside a Whole Foods in Brooklyn, carefully and unabashedly photographing the vegan, fried-oyster-mushroom po'boy he just bought inside. People are staring, but Castro doesn't seem to notice.
Castro, 28, is a vegan restaurant owner and the creator of How To Be Vegan in the Hood, an Instagram account with over 16,000 followers that spreads the gospel of an affordable plant-based diet – especially to bodega-eating residents of New York City's boroughs. He posts gorgeous, appetizing photos of cheap and simple meals that followers can make at home — like jackfruit paired with pan-fried pesto potatoes — or grab from nearby vendors.
Since launching his account last September, he's become somewhat of a local vegan celebrity. "Hey, you're Vegan in the Hood!" a diner says to Castro as we walk out of By Chloe, a vegan chain restaurant in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.
The trendy area has undergone rapid gentrification since 2000 and has experienced a dramatic drop in the number of residents who are Latinos, particularly those who, like Castro, are of Puerto Rican descent.
These days, Williamsburg also has more vegan dining options. As we pass by one — the restaurant Farmer's Daughter — Castro notes that it's filled with white customers, and he shows hesitation to eat inside. We opt to eat our vegan raspberry cupcake from By Chloe on a discarded desk outside.
The observation Castro makes on the demographics inside Farmer's Daughter feeds into a common perception that veganism is a diet for a certain kind of person – an affluent, liberal leaning, white Portlandia character. "I was never really welcomed into the vegan community," Castro says. "They show love, but at a distance."
The reality is that veganism is hardly new for people of color. Plant-based eating has deep roots among African-Americans, and it's gaining traction among Latinos in the U.S. The first Black Veg Fest was held in Brooklyn this year. Castro's own Instagram account is an effort to show veganism as an option for all.
"Anyone can do it," he says. "Anyone can eat plant-based."
Castro himself switched to veganism three years ago. Growing up in Queens, his diet consisted mostly of bodega food.
"The gas station down the block [had] a pizzeria and a burger spot in it. In the projects, everything you need is in the block radius," Castro says. He was raised by a single mother in Queens and the family moved around often. "We were just grateful to eat food. Nutrition wasn't even a thought."
A friend of Castro's was constantly encouraging him to go vegan for health purposes, but Castro balked. "I'm Puerto Rican; we eat pork, we eat meat."
But Castro says paranoia about his consumption of unhealthy foods in his younger years began to make him worry about his future health, so he decided to go pescatarian. Two years after that, he made the full switch to veganism, citing animal rights. "[I thought,] Why am I letting animals live on the land but eating all the animals in the sea?"
That same night, he saw on TV that Waka Flocka Flame, an American rapper, was eating vegan, and decided if Waka Flocka could eat vegan, so could he. He woke his roommate up on the fourth day of eating plant-based with, "Bro, my skin feels so good right now." Castro has been vegan since. (Waka Flocka, on the other hand, is apparently not.)
The switch earned Castro ribbing from his meat-eating friends because of the stereotypes around veganism being for white people and a lack of knowledge surrounding what a plant-based diet looks like. "We'd go out to dinner and they'd say, 'Can you get this guy a bowl of dirt?' " Castro recalls.
Castro says that the teasing helped inspire How To Be Vegan in the Hood. He bought an iPhone 8 Plus with portrait mode to prove a point to his friends. "You know what? I'm going to make an Instagram and show you I can eat everything you're eating without having to kill an animal."
So why the name 'How To Be Vegan in the Hood'? "That's who's always asking me: people from the hood. [They'll say to me:] 'I don't have a Whole Foods by me, I don't have a Trader Joe's ... how are you vegan?' " Castro says, "The truth is you can always afford it, you just weren't taught how to."
Crystal Pang, Castro's fellow vegan-Instagrammer, grew up in Queens, too. "Accessibility is a huge thing in the vegan community that people often kind of mock. They say, 'Oh, you can only be vegan if you're rich and white and if you're this certain ideal' . . . That's not true."
When Pang stumbled upon Castro's Instagram, she was interested in the accessibility and information he was offering his followers. "He's trying to do exactly what I think veganism should move more towards," she says.
Castro has been hopping around New York City most of his adult life. In his early 20s, he co-founded an art gallery in Brooklyn called "City Don't Sleep." After that closed, he started a couple of clothing brands and used social media to sell T-shirts and vintage finds. For a while, he helped run food trucks in Manhattan – until he got the inspiration for How To Be Vegan in the Hood in September 2017.
He'd go to vegan restaurants around the city and photograph his food, share his recipes from home, and talk about what to buy at the bodega using Instagram. "You're hungry and you have six bucks? I can get you full on six bucks," he says.
In May, David Schneider, owner of the Oaxaca Taqueria chain of restaurants in New York, reached out to Castro with the prospect of starting a vegan restaurant. That's how Rip's Malt Shop was born.
Castro is the only partner in Rip's who eats plant-based. Schneider thinks it's an asset to have owners on both sides of the diet. "You really do want someone who's vegan and who understands. It's good to have a partner who sees it from their perspective, too," Schneider says.
Located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Rip's Malt Shop has a large, colorful arrow pointing to its narrow entrance. The shop is sandwiched in between an auto repair business and residential buildings. It's clearly a destination for customers, not a place one happens to drop in.
One of the chef's at Rip's, Sebastian Matheus, makes me the eatery's popular chopped cheese sandwich – a vegan riff on a beloved bodega favorite sometimes described as New York's version of the Philly cheesesteak, but made with ground beef instead of sliced steak. It's a sandwich that Castro's family and friends begged him to make at gatherings.
The sandwich consists of a Beyond Meat veggie burger, diced up and grilled with sweet relish and diced onions mixed in. Once it's almost done cooking, Daiya dairy-free cheese, made of cassava and arrowroot, is added in. The onions caramelize with the cheese, and the concoction is served on a club roll with signature Rip's sauce, which resembles the Big Mac sauce from McDonald's. Lettuce and tomato top the sandwich. Finally, a tiny yellow flag is poked into the top of the roll, and a sliced dill pickle is placed inside the red-checked, paper food dish, Coney Island-style.
The result fools my taste buds: It tastes like meat, it tastes like cheese, it tastes somewhat like a Philly cheesesteak.
"It's like a beautiful mess," Castro says of his creation.
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